Just Diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis? Important Terms to Know

Understanding these rheumatoid arthritis terms may help you have better conversations with your provider.

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After a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, you may hear many unfamiliar words from your healthcare team. Unless you know someone else with this condition, these words may all be foreign to you. You don’t need to be able to spell them or take a quiz on them, but understanding these terms may help you have more effective conversations with your doctor.

For what it’s worth, it’s your doctor’s job to help you understand all the aspects of how to manage your condition. You should feel comfortable asking your doctor to explain if they use a word you’re not familiar with. They also want you to feel informed and confident with your rheumatoid arthritis management.

If you still have questions when you get home, here is a breakdown of some of the words you should know.

What are the parts of the body that rheumatoid arthritis affects?

Synovial Membrane

Your synovial membrane is a layer of connective tissue. It lines the joints, tendons, and bursae. Think of it like a water balloon squished between the bones at each joint: The balloon itself is the synovial membrane.

Synovial Fluid

The synovial fluid is inside the synovial membrane. (It’s the water inside the water balloon.) Your synovial fluid helps line the joints and provide cushion and lubrication. This reduces friction on the joints when you move.

Together, the synovial fluid and membrane are called the synovium. With rheumatoid arthritis, the synovium becomes inflamed. This inflammation is called synovitis. This causes pain, stiffness, and swelling.

Cartilage

Your cartilage is a type of connective tissue. It is tough, yet flexible. It is like a cap on the end of the bone, and it helps the bones naturally glide over each other when you move. The synovial membrane helps provide joint fluid for the cartilage.

The inflammation in the joint area ultimately leads to cartilage damage. As the cartilage erodes, the joint may become stiffer and more painful, and you may have reduced range of motion. Over time, this may lead to permanent deformities.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis damage?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. Here’s what you should know about how this category of health conditions typically works.

Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases cause your immune system to mistakenly attack your normal, healthy cells. Normally, the immune system attacks germs, tumors, and other abnormal cells or invaders. Its job is to help keep you healthy.

In someone with an autoimmune disease, the immune system is hyperactive. It mistakes your healthy cells for something dangerous. Autoimmune diseases are chronic, which means they cannot be cured (as of now). However, treatment is available to help manage symptoms and slow the progression.

In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the synovium. The symptoms may occur in periods of flares and remissions.

What are flares and remissions?

Flares

A flare is a period of new or worsening symptoms. During a rheumatoid arthritis flare, you may need more aggressive treatment options.

Remission

Remission is a period of no or little disease activity. A primary goal of rheumatoid arthritis treatment is to help you reach and maintain remission. When you’re in remission, inflammation is under control. In general, the longer you can stay in remission, the less damage you may accumulate on the joints.

Trigger

A trigger is something that may lead to a rheumatoid arthritis flare. Examples of triggers include stress, not taking your medications, or having an infection. There are some common triggers, but each person will need to learn their own personal triggers. Knowing your triggers may help reduce your risk of flares.

What are treatments for rheumatoid arthritis?

DMARDs

DMARDs stands for disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs. These are often the first line of treatment against rheumatoid arthritis. They change how the immune system works to help reduce inflammation and pain.

Some of the newest types of DMARDs are called JAK inhibitors (janus kinase inhibitors). These oral medications help treat rheumatoid arthritis by blocking certain inflammatory activity. This may reduce pain and swelling in the synovium.

Biologics

This medication is another subtype of DMARDs. Biologics target very specific parts of the immune system that are causing rheumatoid arthritis activity. They often come in the form of injections or infusions.

What should I do if I can’t understand my healthcare provider?

People in any profession spend a lot of time talking to their coworkers — often using specialized words and phrases. This is true for medical professionals, too.

It’s human nature to get used to speaking a certain way, and it can sometimes be hard to “turn off” that way of talking. As a result, you may sometimes feel that your doctor is talking in another language to you.

Ultimately, your doctor wants you to understand them. If they are using words you don’t understand, just ask for clarification. This will help you better understand your rheumatoid arthritis — and possibly even help strengthen your relationship with your healthcare provider.